Commercial fishing, on some level and despite moderate mental resistance, may have been inescapable for me. I was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the fishing capital of the entire East Coast. My father has operated on the high seas for almost fifty years, owned dozens of boats, employed hundreds of people, engineered now-common technology, and landed enough shellfish along the way to warrant mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. As a kid, the vast Fall River State Line Pier was my playground; a cavernous 180-foot crab catcher/processor was my jungle gym. To my mild chagrin, Iíve been told on more than one occasion that fishing is ďin [my] bloodĒ. I never really wanted to be a fisherman, but I reckon some things in life are inevitable.
Despite my fatherís significant success in the commercial fishing industry, he has also managed to realize great failure. So, at 74 years young, reality dictates that he continue with his eighty-hour work weeks and attempt to drag up a retirement from two thousand feet beneath the surface. William Whipple owns and operates the F/V Lady Mary, a deep water golden crabber out of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I was on my way to Alaska when I stopped by for a visit. His overall condition depressed me to the point that I determined I had to come assist him. So together we mangle our hands and break our backs, try each otherís nerves, deprive ourselves of sleep, and eat Chef Boy-ar-dee every day with the hope that sometime soon we can call up to Massachusetts and tell Helen, his wife and my mother, that she can quit her full-time job. Whether or not she actually wants to quit - at age 75 - remains questionable and quite beside the point.
The business, Nielsen Golden Crab Fisheries Inc., is young and struggling. My father scarcely pays himself. The majority of the money we earn gets directly reinvested in the company for necessary capital improvements Ė weíre trying to build something that will endure. And we owe the effort not just to ourselves. Sadly, the reason this opportunity became available to my father was due to the tragic death of a great young fisherman, Richard Nielsen, a humble hero, claimed by the sea in a terrible accident off these south Florida shores in 2003. He will not be forgotten.
Richardís death, while we werenít exactly close, nevertheless had a profound effect on the course of my life. I have maintained sites on different boats in different fisheries, catching fish and lobster and crab, from Kenai, Alaska to Key West, Florida. The paychecks are decent enough, though they never quite seem to warrant the effort required to earn them. The mysterious allure of the deep just keeps a guy coming back for more though, no promises, just the eternal potential of ďnext time,Ē the mantra of the career romantic. I donít regret the energy Iíve invested in this industry, but, until recently, I hadnít found the courage to pursue my genuine desire. Richardís untimely passing, for some reason, prompted me to consider my own mortality, and manifested that courage. Now when I consider Death, it motivates me to never want to have to say, ďIf only I had triedÖĒ
What I always wanted to be is a writer. I plan to keep helping my father as long as the industry looks viable here, or until we simply cannot tolerate each other any longer. But in the meantime, with essential regard for the health of my psyche, I dedicate every available second to my passion. Iíve been working on my first novel, Pickup Sticks, about a successful Key West businessman trying to reconcile with his homeless brother, for four years and counting. Iíve also begun construction of a second novel, as yet untitled, about a manís heroic, soulful romp through the complicated nastiness of regional politics. But I recognize these efforts will take a quite a while. I want to contribute now.
Ironically, Iíve discovered writing to be as romantic and grueling as the fishing. Maybe the two seemingly disparate professions offer the same undulating rhythm of life, I donít know. Hemingway felt the connection. So perhaps not surprisingly, the most valuable thing Iíve collected in over ten years of hauling gear coast-to-coast is the stories. The amazing array of dynamic characters and events, the zany personalities and crazy tales of adventure, comprise a collective historical treasure. So while I search the ocean for the next colossal catch, Iíve already harvested a priceless bounty. The fun and funny stories sometimes approach fantasy, and I think they deserve to be shared and enjoyed. So my current vocation provides me current creative material. I reckon a perpetrator or two might argue that their exploits were meant to rest forever down in Davy Jonesí locker, but these stories cry to be raised from the depths. Because these men are legends. These men are Deep Sea Gangsters.